The doors are not automatic, and someone has to hold them open for us as we wander in. I try not to touch the thousands of smudgy fingerprints coating the edges of the plexiglass, my right eye well protected by my left hand from the florescent lights. My boyfriend and I gesture at my eye, much to the dismay of the young man at the information desk. I think he is asking if we speak Korean. I tell him, “아니요.”
There is a small child running about in a red t-shirt and nothing else, his bare butt cheeks free in the waiting room and hallway. Some kind of paper is processed at the desk nearby. The half-naked child is laughing and playing, running between the chairs of the waiting room that hold a handful of rather ill and injured-looking people. The woman at the desk asks me my name. Coleen. No last name, just two syllables in their records. She gestures to have a seat.
There are a few sizable spots of blood on the floor, just under the waiting chairs. One is fresh and bright scarlet, and another across the linoleum is a darker dried up color. I look at them, wondering just how often the floor is mopped in here. The pantsless child plops onto the floor bare assed with a slap, his mother admonishing him with exasperation only having a sick child can produce.
“Coleen-nim? Coleen-nim?” A nurse is calling me. She hustles me into the actual ER, where open cots are brimming with patients. The walls appear to be under construction or perhaps mold containment, white plastic trash bags stretched over the entrance and secured with duct tape. The nurse is talking to me in rapid Korean.
She hooks me up to the blood pressure cuff and tries to ask what my problem is. I point to my eye, red and painful. She gestures a hit. I say no. She looks perplexed. I wonder if it actually looks as bad as it hurts. Finally, she grabs a passing nurse who speaks passable English. She takes my pulse. The look on her face tells me it’s through the roof.
More waiting. An ambulance pulls up to the hospital, a man on the gurney unsecured. He is unconscious, and the non-automatic doors have to be held out of the way by four nurses as they wheel him in. I don’t see any visible injuries, but he looks in a bad way. a few minutes later a woman I assume is his wife arrives, looking decidedly not upset over his fate. A few more women arrive and the doctors wheel him into the imaging room. Only then, and outside the stupid swinging doors, does she cry.
The blood is drying where it was once red, and still no one has come to clean it up. A doctor wanders into the waiting area to talk to the gentleman next to us, who is hooked up to an IV but still in a pressed suit. The doctor is very young, wearing a white labcoat covered in ink from pens that have leaked on it that is three sizes too large for him. He is in sandals, his dirty toenails hanging out. That can’t be sanitary practice. I find myself imagining a needle falling and sticking him in the toes.
The afternoon is dragging on when I finally see a doctor. He sits me in a small examination room and tries to ask me about the problem, holding up an ear chart less than five feet from me. crooked. His lab coat is too big for him, too. I’m beginning to wonder if these are all just medical students playing dress up for the day. Russell is with me through all of this, occasionally wearing my heavy purse. After the doctor leaves the room and a nurse shuffles us back to the waiting area, he pulls out Angry Birds to distract us. I play through my one good eye.
A resident in yet another oversized lab coat comes out of the ER, with a chart. He gestures that we follow him and suddenly we’re outside the building, walking across the parking lot and into the main hospital. It’s dark and yet crowded inside, with people waiting on benches. A man with an IV is in the group headed out with us, struggling to push it along and keep up with the doctor’s urgent stride. Finally we come to the ophthalmology department. The young doctor (?) leaves. It’s a lot darker in here.
The on-call ophthalmologist comes out in green scrubs, and calls me in. He speaks to me in Korean for a full five minutes before I notice that his medical degree is from Indiana University. Surely he must be able to speak English, having graduated from medical school in it? I’m a bit disappointed when he finally switches, since he doesn’t remember how to say “Right eye” in English. Luckily I know the codes from when I worked in the eye doctor’s office last fall. OD. OS. OD, yes, the red and painful one.
His office is a study in how not to keep a sanitary doctor’s office. Used Q-tips are all over the floor, mostly missing the cardboard box with an E-Mart bag inside meant to function as a trash can. I think I can see a used needle in there, but I hope that it isn’t. No sharps container. Grocery bags are needle-proof, right? There is no sink or hand sanitizer in the room, and I’m not particularly pleased when he begins holding up my eyelid with unwashed hands.
He shines lights in my eyes, leans back, and disposes of the Q-tip he used. It hits the side of the box and sticks for a few moments.
“Go back to the ER,” he is saying. “A nurse will give you drops.”
“What is the problem with my eye?” I think it’s an obvious question, but then again maybe not. He struggles to remember how to say, “Inflammation,” and explains that he needs to check my retina. The name of the condition, I will find out through a Google search later, is Uveitis. I head back to the ER, my own chart in hand. Back through the smudgy doors, still trying to avoid the marks of unwashed hands.
“Coleen-nim? Coleen-nim?” Don’t they know who I am yet? I’ve been the only giant (female, Russell is bigger than me) foreigner in the ER all afternoon.
I flag the running nurse down. He drops something into both my eyes, and then runs off without explanation. Ten minutes later, he is back. Tilts my head back with his free hand, dumps drops into both eyes with the other. He gives me some instructions in rapid Korean, ignoring my confused, “What?” as he runs away again. The blood on the floor is truly dry now, and I can’t play Angry Birds anymore because of the dilating drops. I can’t see much of anything, actually. I decide to take off my glasses and lean on Russell’s shoulder.
In about thirty minutes, it’s time to see the doctor again. This time they lead me inside but there is a patient who needs to go before me. We wait for 30 minutes, testing Russell’s vision on the eye charts. We can hear the doctor’s phone going off every few minutes with a new call, blaring some shitty rock song into the darkened office.
It’s my turn. I sit back down in the examination chair, wary of touching anything in the room of scattered Q-tips. The doctor wastes no time, putting my face into the examination equipment. It’s not sanitized with a little wipe like I always did at the eye gallery in the mall back home. His phone keeps going off, marking every two minutes.
“See down,” he says, holding my eyelid open. I try, I really do. My eye has other ideas, and the second that the light touches it a sound like rushing water fills my ears. I can feel my muscles shaking, fighting to look downward, but my eye is rolling about desperately trying to escape the light. “See down…” he says with a hint of annoyance in his voice. The rumble in my ears becomes a roar, and I fight to keep my feet from kicking out at his shins in pain.
Finally he drops my eye and sits back. He says nothing while I put my hand over my eye, tears streaming freely from it. Then he leaves the room. No explanation, just leaves. I can’t even find my glasses to put them back on. He returns with another doctor, who again asks if I speak Korean. Then he sits in the chair and tries to shine the light in my eye one more time. “See down,” he says. The rumble is back in my ears. I can’t control my eye. I kick a bit and probably make some pathetic little whimper.
“See down,” he says, more than a hint of frustration in his voice.
“I’m sorry, I’m trying…it just hurts a lot,” I say through gritted teeth. Finally, he gives up. The two doctors actually chuckle a little while they converse in Korean about my case, and then I’m told to once again find my way back to the ER.
A half an hour later we walk out of the hospital with three medications in hand (big-gun Predinisone for the inflammation, antibiotics in case of infection, and dilating drops for the pain) and an admonition to see a university hospital doctor that week. All told, the four hours in the bloody and busy ER cost me 51,000 won ($50). And my Sunday afternoon.
The night sky lights up in a glory of blazing sunset, looking a bit like Armageddon through my blurred vision. A least I can still work the camera with decent accuracy.